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Jury decides teen's killer deserves life without parole

December 14, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Fourteen months after the murder of 14-year-old Miana Stewart, a jury of eight men and four women seated in Berkeley County Circuit Court decided her killer should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Roger Dwayne Smith, 25, did not receive a recommendation of mercy from the jury, which needed little more than 45 minutes to decide the sentencing question after hearing hours of emotional testimony.

"We appreciate the jury's deliberation on this," Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely said after jurors were excused by 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge David H. Sanders, who announced the decision.

Smith last week entered guilty pleas to the felony murder of Stewart on Oct. 13, 2005, in the basement of her Gerrardstown, W.Va., home and counts of possession of a stolen vehicle, malicious wounding, attempted murder of Stewart's mother, Mary Stewart, and first-degree (aggravated) robbery. He also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of fleeing from a police officer.

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Sanders set a sentencing hearing for 3 p.m. Feb. 26. At that time, the judge has the discretion to officially tack on more prison time for the other felony convictions, including a second life sentence for the robbery charge.

In closing arguments, Games-Neely told jurors they should not be swayed by the tearful statement Smith gave to police or the apologetic statements he gave to a forensic psychologist and his mother in a telephone conversation from Eastern Regional Jail that claimed the girl's death was accidental.

"This is not a person who deserves mercy," Games-Neely said. "...He did not show these individuals one ounce of mercy, even in the face of this child's tears."

Smith bound Miana Stewart to a weight bench in the basement of her Reunion Corner Road home and gagged her with adhesive tape soon after she arrived home from school about 3 p.m. and disrupted his burglary of the property, police said.

Stewart's mother testified Wednesday that when she arrived home from work about an hour later, Smith struck her with a baseball bat three times and then bound and gagged her.

"I thought, 'Why is this man in my house and where's Miana?'" Stewart said.

She said she remembered being dragged down the flight of steps leading to the basement, her head hitting each step.

Stewart testified that her head was bleeding profusely when Smith told her to lay on the floor in the exercise room, where her daughter also was taken. She was then hog-tied, with her hands behind her back and feet tied to them, Stewart said.

While in the basement, Smith demanded PIN numbers from Mary Stewart to access her bank and credit accounts, but she only had one code to give for an account that had less than $500 in it.

"I didn't even have a dollar in my billfold," Stewart said. "So he didn't get any cash."

Though unclear how long she was in the basement, Stewart said her daughter at one point began to cry from pain inflicted on her bound hands.

Stewart said Smith responded by apparently tightening a rope around her daughter's neck.

Her view of what was happening was partially blocked when Smith stepped on her face, Mary Stewart said.

"Miana started coughing ... from coughing it started going to a choking sound," Stewart said. "I guess she was trying to get her last breath.

"There's nothing I could do to help her. I felt helpless. I think at that point I just had to stop feeling. I was trying to keep calm and trying not to think what he had just done."

Stewart said she flexed her neck to make it "big and tight" in an attempt to allow her breathing room when Smith tied a shorter rope around her neck. She was able to escape to a neighbor's house for help after pretending to have passed out.

A Berkeley County Ambulance Authority EMT testified Wednesday that the rope around Miana's neck was so tight that he was forced to cut the knot first.

Miana Stewart was in cardiac arrest when Monte Conner said he found her beneath blankets and clothing that Smith had covered them with.

Bernard Lewis, the only witness called by defense attorneys Eric Black and Christopher Prezioso, told the jury that records show Smith was physically abused and neglected beginning at age 2, sexually assaulted at age 5 and again at 13 by two men, one of whom later was convicted. The other committed suicide, Lewis said.

He noted that abuse led to depression, which led to his "self-medicating" use of alcohol, marijuana, heroin and other drugs. Lewis also believed Smith was suffering from withdrawal from heroin and was sleep-deprived when he burglarized the home. Smith admitted to police that he used heroin, marijuana and alcohol days earlier, investigators testified Wednesday.

Lewis, a forensic and clinical psychologist, said his evaluation led him to conclude that Smith had accepted responsibility for his actions by entering a guilty plea to the charges and repeatedly giving statements of remorse since Stewart's death.

Lewis said Smith stated last week in a final conversation that he "put these people through enough already" and decided to enter the guilty plea to avoid a lengthy trial.

Though disappointed by the jury's decision, Black conceded the case was difficult to present. Prezioso extended his and Black's "deepest sympathies" to Miana Stewart's family and friends in his closing arguments.

"This case is a tragedy," Prezioso said. "There is no other way to look at it."

Jurors also heard testimony from Miana's best friend, Jessica Pangle, 15; her neighbor, Sharon Busey; and Mary Stewart's younger sister, Holly Sibole. They remembered Miana as someone who was full of laughter, willing to help just about anyone and a believer in God.

"She would want everybody to know that she's in a better place now," Pangle said.

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